The Great Meadow
Brian Donahue, 2007

I read this right after Carolyn Merchant and William Cronon. But in addition to being relevant as environmental history,
The Great Meadow is a valuable contribution to the discussion of the Market Transition and a counterpoint to the declensionist narrative of New England agriculture. Donahue examined the ecology of colonial Concord Massachusetts farming in extreme depth. I recall that some of my classmates in a UMass graduate Environmental History class thought this led to questions of relevance, which seemed a fair criticism. But Donahue’s detailed description of the land and the agriculture Concordians practiced on it was a welcome antidote to Carolyn Merchant’s vagueness and ideologically-dominated narrative in The Death of Nature, which we had read previously.

Part of the value in Donahue’s book came from his approach to the project he undertook. Environmental historians typically spend a lot of time alluding to sustainability and degradation. Donahue deliberately limited the scope of his question to “did the system of husbandry put in place by the first proprietors and their descendants undermine its own ecological foundations, or could it be sustained?”

The answer to this question, it turned out, was it depends. Fields were kept in tillage “for centuries, and some [are] being plowed to this day.” Despite the arguments of Winifred Rothenberg, Cronon, and Merchant that Donahue said “have emphasized the ecological damage that resulted from this revolution to a ‘world of fields and fences,’” Donahue believed “these people knew what they were doing.” After examining extensive evidence, he concluded, “Colonial husbandry in Concord …was intensive farming, in which…a workable balance among these lands was established and carefully maintained.” Ironically, the market-oriented agriculture that followed, according to Donahue, was “a far more extractive,
extensive way of farming” than the methods used by Concordians for nearly seven generations.

Donahue was so thorough in his descriptions of Concord farming and his writing so vivid, that a sense of inevitability seems to creep into the reader’s mind. He tried to avoid it, challenging assumptions as wide as the existence of the Holocene as a distinct period (in a passage that reminded me of “big history,” Donahue argued we’re in a Pleistocene interglacial and it’s nearly over). But he did such a thorough job describing what happened in Concord and how it was sustainable, that the reader could easily forget that Concord was not a closed system. Nor was it unchanging: the combination of crops was altered toward the end of the period, when farmers began planting potatoes. In addition to being invisible in the records and leading some to incorrectly assume that crop yields per acre were decreasing at a greater rate than they actually were, potatoes were a more efficient source of nutrition than the grain they replaced. So even if it had been sustainable, the Concord system was not necessarily optimal throughout its history.

Similarly, technological change and other resource substitutions complicated the picture at the end of the period Donahue described. The increase in nearby urban populations, competition from newly accessible western farms (via the Erie Canal and Railroads), and the sheer inability of Concord to feed all its people, necessitated openness to the outside world. There were a variety of possible solutions to sustainability, once you have decided how many and what types of relationships with the outside are allowed. Maybe the lesson is that people don’t seem to want to live within the constraints of a closed system (especially with its limits to population growth) and are always seeking a way around it. What happens when there’s nowhere left to look for energy sources outside the system?